Why Tunis, Why Cairo?

Why Tunis, Why Cairo? by Issandr El Amrani

‘Egypt is not Tunisia,’ the pundits repeatedly said on television after Zine Abidine Ben-Ali fled Tunis for Saudi Arabia. They pointed to the differences between the two countries: one small, well-educated, largely middle-class; the other the largest in terms of population in the Arab world, with a high rate of illiteracy and ever widening inequality. Tunisia was a repressive police state in which information was tightly controlled and most people never dared to criticize the leadership out loud. Egypt was a military dictatorship that allowed a fair amount of freedom of expression, as long as it had no political consequences: you could criticize the president, but not launch a campaign to unseat him. In Tunisia, a rapacious first family indulged in widespread racketeering, alienating every social class. In Egypt, most of the elite benefited from the stability the regime maintained, and while corruption was endemic, it was not generally identified with a single clan.

But there were also important similarities. In recent years, the legitimacy of both regimes had begun to wane; in each case the ruler had been in place so long that half the population had no memory of his predecessor – more than 23 years in the case of Ben-Ali, nearly 30 in the case of Hosni Mubarak. People were uncertain about the future. Both regimes had effectively emptied formal politics of meaning by banning any party that had real popular appeal and restricting others to the status of a loyal opposition, thus depriving itself of intermediaries between the state and its citizens who could have negotiated an end to the crisis. Both countries’ supposed stability was dependent on a strategic relationship with the West. Tunisia enjoyed a warm and privileged relationship with Paris: it was reassuring for the French, angst-ridden about the growing visibility of their Muslim minority, to be able to look approvingly on a Muslim country that peddled its own commitment to laïcité as a signal that although it might be a dictatorship, it was an enlightened and progressive one. As for Egypt, Anthony Eden may have described Nasser as ‘that Hitler on the Nile’, but after the 1978 Camp David Accords the country became a pillar of American interests in the Middle East and – by its withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli conflict – an unwitting enabler of the expansionism of the Zionist state.

Above all, Tunisia and Egypt were the last places in which most people – whether experts or ordinary citizens – would have expected to see uprisings anything like those of recent weeks. On the evening of 27 January, I sat in a hotel room in Tunis, eyes glued to Twitter for news of what was happening in Egypt. I had come the previous week to report on the Tunisian revolution, which on 14 January had forced Ben-Ali to flee. The mood in Tunis was exhilarating, the situation seemed pregnant with possibility. I didn’t recognize the country I knew: a people I had thought cowed by years of subtle psychological terror as practiced by one of the Arab world’s most sophisticated police regimes, had changed overnight. On my last visit to Tunis, in 2003, people had seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and in some way – cruel though it may be to say this – complicit in their own predicament. Now Tunisians were high on the freedom not only to express themselves, but to imagine the future shape their country might take.

Just before midnight, I began to receive calls from Cairo that the internet there was no longer working. A few days later I would find out that State Security had been monitoring and controlling the flow of voice and data communication since the first day of the protest, during which they had either shut off or lowered the capacity of mobile phone relay towers in areas where the protesters were congregating. It was the first sign of regime panic. As one friend said, ‘It was as if I had gone to bed in Egypt and woken up the next day in North Korea.’

Continue article via London Review of Books


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